Flights at Ben Gurion Airport suffer weeks of interruption to GPS systems
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Flights at Ben Gurion Airport suffer weeks of interruption to GPS systems

Airports Authority says it doesn’t know what’s behind the navigation interference, but problem hasn’t caused safety issues; pilots association cites possible ‘attack’

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

An airplane takes off from Ben Gurion International Airport, on November 15, 2018. (Flash90/File)
An airplane takes off from Ben Gurion International Airport, on November 15, 2018. (Flash90/File)

For the past three weeks, planes flying near Ben Gurion International Airport have been unable to use their satellite navigation systems, and the government does not know why, the Airports Authority said Wednesday.

The issue, which affects GPS reception, has not yet caused any accidents or safety incidents, but has a “significant impact on all aspects of operating a plane from the cockpit, as well as on managing air traffic,” an airports spokesman said in a statement.

The Israeli Airline Pilots Association believes the system problems were being caused by what’s known as a “spoofing” attack, a fairly advanced method of feeding GPS receivers with incorrect location data by a transmitter, making it appear to the pilot as though the aircraft is in a different location, sometimes miles away. As the GPS receiver continues to show location information, it does not immediately appear as a malfunction.

According to the airports authority, it is not yet known what is causing the GPS problems.

“From the first day that this interference appeared, all government bodies in Israel have been working to solve this issue and to find the source of the problem,” the spokesman said.

A number of countries are believed to have access to the technology necessary to conduct spoofing attacks. It is unlikely that this is the work of an individual or a terrorist group, according to the pilots association.

“This type of blocking requires great technical knowledge and high mechanical capability, which is not possessed by individuals or organizations,” the association wrote on Twitter.

This type of blocking requires great technical knowledge and high mechanical capability, which is not possessed by individuals or organizations

Since the interference began, planes in Israel have had to use an alternative method for landings, known as the Instrument Landing System.

“It is a safe and professional method that is used every day in airports around the world, including Israel,” the Airports Authority said.

The GPS reception problem only affects airplanes in the sky, not sensors on the ground.

“Ben Gurion Airport controllers have been giving full guidance to planes that are taking off and landing. At no point has there been a safety incident connected to this GPS interference or related to navigation instructions or flight paths,” the airports spokesman said.

The pilots association indicated that it believed it knew who was behind the spoofing attacks, but refused to identify the country.

“You can guess who’s doing the blocking,” the group wrote on Twitter.

GPS spoofing problems have been reported in Russia in the past. In June 2017, over 20 ships experienced GPS interference while sailing through the Black Sea, showing the vessels to be 25 nautical miles (46.3 kilometers) closer to the shore than they actually were and in some cases on land. Similar anomalies have been reported around the Kremlin and Putin’s Palace.

Researchers have surmised that Russian officials use GPS spoofing as a protective measure for Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to Norwegian news outlet NRKbeta. During the GPS interference in the Black Sea, Putin was located nearby, inspecting a natural gas pipeline.

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